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“Lend Me a Tenor”, a comedy by Ken Ludwig, presented by Avon Players, Rochester MI

Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association; Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle), and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)

Photos courtesy of Avon Players

Jonathan Farrell, Erica Gunaca

“Tenor” Promises a Good Time

Avon Players is serving up a crowd-pleasing show, “Lend Me a Tenor”, a classic farce in every sense. First created by renowned playwright Ken Ludwig (“Murder on the Orient Express”, “Fox on the Fairway”), it premiered on London’s West End in 1986 with Andrew Lloyd Webber as producer. It went on to Broadway in 1989, garnering nine Tony nominations, winning two awards.

As the story opens, the folks at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company couldn’t be more excited. For tonight only, world-famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli has agreed to sing the lead role in their presentation of Pagliacci. Everybody loves Tito, especially his female fans, and he loves them right back, much to the perpetual chagrin of his wife, Maria.

The opera company’s stressed-out manager, Henry Saunders, is played by Joe Colosi in a solid performance. Nick Frederick, pleasantly dorky as Henry’s hapless young assistant Max, really comes into his own when he dons the clown hat. Max is in love with Henry’s pretty young daughter Maggie, delivered as a goofy airhead by Kimme Suchyta.  Max’s problem: Maggie has a long-standing obsession with – you guessed it – Tito Merelli. Jonathan Farrell as Tito has a nice stage presence and a fine tenor voice when he’s called upon to use it.

Jonathan Farrell, Johanna Steinbrecher-Booker

By far the standout is Johanna Steinbrecher-Booker (so good in Avon’s recent hits “Company” and “Mamma Mia”). As Tito’s bombastic wife Maria, she owns the stage whenever she’s on. Second in the scenery-chewing department is Erica Gunaca as Diana, an aspiring ingenue soprano who’s willing to do anything with anyone to get ahead. Rounding out the enjoyable cast is Joy Oetjens as the grandiose opera guild chair Julia (who, Henry says, looks like the Chrysler Building), and Bodi Johnson as the crazed fanboy bellhop, a source of many over-the-top disruptions.

No spoilers here, but one of the priceless sight gags – indeed, the main point of this farce – is two identical Pagliaccis running around, romancing women who can’t tell them apart, and making mayhem. At one point they lean on a wall directly opposite each other, and it’s supposed to be a mirror image. In this show, one of the guys is quite a bit taller and the ladies would have to be blind not to notice. This really diminishes the potential comic impact.

The play’s 1930s setting gives costume designer Anne Curtis the chance to dress the cast in some pretty spiffy duds. The single set by Brad Holoday and Mark Misch, representing a fancy hotel room with a dividing wall, offers plenty of room to throw hissy fits, slam doors, drink champagne, flirt shamelessly and make mad whoopee, all in the course of one wild day.

Deirdre Ward-Beck is a relatively new director at Avon, making her debut in 2018. Her guidance is capable, but farce is challenging, especially for community theatre companies. To make farce really work well, a refresher course in the special theatrical techniques used in voice and movement might be helpful. Nevertheless, even though the show gets off to a slow start, the momentum that’s built into the script brings everything together in the second act, with the audience really enjoying themselves in a recent sold-out matinee performance.

An interesting note: As originally written by Ludwig, the opera being staged in the story was Othello, with the lead role performed by an actor wearing the blackface makeup that leads to mistaken identity and farcical madcap high jinks. This became problematic in recent years, as blackface drew increasing criticism. In response, the opera in the story was updated to the more acceptable (and relevant) Pagliacci, with the lead role performed in whiteface clown makeup, hat and costume. Anyway, aren’t crazy clowns more fun? But clowns or not, nothing beats a good farce to lift your spirits and let you laugh at yourself, and maybe even the whole human race.

Now through March 21, 2020

Tickets $16-$18

Avon Playhouse

1185 Washington Rd

Rochester, MI 48306

(248) 608-9077

 www.avonplayers.org

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